It was the summer of 2009. I came on board as a full-time staff member in the Academic Technology Support division of the Office of Information Technology at CU Boulder. For three years prior, I had been a student worker in the same group, and part of the first response team for end-user AV support. At my first official meeting, there was a plea from the management for someone to do the research to find an AV inventory and asset management tool. I was eager to jump in. I had first-hand experience with operations management and I was dissatisfied at the lack of process, transparency, and accurate tracking of the equipment our group integrated on campus.
Back then, it was nearly impossible to find equipment purchase information, serial numbers, Refresh and Renewal info, or even an item’s location—without mincing words, our AV inventory management was tumultuous. We had several tools: FileMaker Pro, Excel, C.I.T.S. (Custom Install Tech System), Exchange Calendar, several auto discovery systems, OIT Finance Reallocation Forms—and the list went on. Our main tracking tool was a years-old Excel spreadsheet, handed down from generations where perhaps the most complicated pieces of equipment were a 100-pound. Electrohome CRT data projector and a beat-up 3M overhead projector.
Time and technology marched on; our equipment inventory grew—and so did that Excel spreadsheet— way out of hand.
PLANNING YOUR MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
The first task in getting control of our inventory: a tool that collapsed our list into a single management system, and that would track equipment by purchase, serial number and other tracking info, warranty date, job, location, bar code creation, and scanning, and could create customizable asset reports. It’s a daunting task to be sure—our campus has over 250 centrally scheduled classrooms alone, all of them either smart, or on our roadmap to become smart.
We also had several storage areas for equipment we had purchased to be eventually installed in rooms. Add to this another addendum: we were soon to begin an AV Integration Auxiliary service within our group, whereby we would be “selling” AV installation and support to departments on campus. We would need an invoice creation tool, too, not to mention a payment system and shipping service. It had to be efficient, fast, and flawless.
I started by examining our process—our main mission was to provide maintenance, support, and service to end-users in classrooms who used our AV systems. On the other side of that, we installed and upgraded existing technology, moving to better control systems, data projectors, communication protocols—and yes, more equipment. How do you keep track of every device that goes into building a smart classroom? Which items do you track? What information are you tracking? Which items are subject to R&R? How do you track-outdated equipment that comes back for disposal, RMA return to the manufacturer, or sale to the public? What kind of reports do you need to see? Are you interested in depreciation, bottom-line budgeting, cost of building a room, cost of repairing a room, et cetera?
Our engineering team researches and then designs the systems that go in our spaces. The technicians build and then install that technology. It could be a large rack system with Crestron DM, or it could be something like a SP Controls Inc. PixiePro and Networked Room Controller. Regardless, equipment must be purchased, pulled out of storage, assembled in one location, and then transferred to another.
RECORD, RECORD, RECORD
Part of our process as technicians is to record specific information about the equipment that is in a classroom. The philosophy behind this is that the more we know about a classroom, the better prepared we are to make emergency service calls. You can imagine, however, how problematic this might be: transposition of numbers for the serial number, wrong projection screen size, missed components. The list goes on. Add to this another situation: what if a piece of equipment breaks? The item must come back to the shop. It has to be cleaned, tested, and evaluated.
Finally, is the item under warranty—should an RMA be obtained, or should it just be disposed of? In the end, a new piece of equipment goes into the location. It’s either an upgrade to the existing technology or a replacement of the same. What if documentation isn’t updated correctly? This could be quite possible given that a repair could be an emergency swap during a ten-minute class break. Suddenly you have incorrect items in a location, and no idea where the broken piece of equipment went, aka this is an exponential nightmare.
Audits are difficult also. Often equipment isn’t where it is supposed to be. There are too many storage areas; too many hands moving equipment around and too many ways that an item can be easily misplaced. Audits are also not done in a timely manner, on a regular basis, or meticulously enough. In this system, there is no such thing as real-time tracking.
ENSURE THAT YOUR SYSTEM FIGHTS DAILY APATHY
Apathy is a strong component in this environment; quite often, not everyone is on the same page. You might have one individual or a couple of individuals dedicated to maintaining process and documentation, but others might not make this their priority. Even with two individuals updating an inventory database, transferring equipment, creating definitive processes by which equipment is checked out, returned, or sold—it is nearly impossible to keep eyes on the equipment at all times. How do you maintain control?
EQUIPMENT & SYSTEM TRAINING
It is nearly impossible to keep eyes on all of your equipment at all times. How do you maintain control of your inventory?Finally, we look at equipment comprehension. While knowledge levels vary, doing this type of work increases your understanding of what it’s for. First and foremost, I am a technician; I recognize the different manufacturers, components, and miscellaneous parts used to put together a system. I’ve also helped to standardize the protocols by which we build our boxes or racks that go into our classrooms. This way, no one classroom is different from another—any technician at any time can make a service call to any location. I also do most of the purchasing for my group. All of these elements help quite a bit and are necessary components. Bottom line: if my administrators need to know an exact cost of building a room—I can tell them, from the labor down to the last BNC connector.
So now the process is established—researching the tool you need to provide the answers you’re looking for is clearly delineated. What we needed to track was: what we’ve bought, what it’s for, where it went, R&R, inventory with purchase data, customizable tracking information, and associate inventory with projects. We also needed to incorporate projected planning and scheduling, mobile device input/output, and bar code scanning. We had to limit end-user access, form a knowledge repository, craft the ability to create customizable reports, and forecast budgets. We had to integrate with our existing service-management/ help-desk software, and create unlimited locations. In our environment we have zones; zones are associated with buildings and classrooms, and each technician is assigned a zone. We also needed to print out reports based on a precise location, by individual, or by zone group. Ostensibly, our tool needed to comprehensive and flexible.
ENTERING THE FISHBOWL
My year-long research and trials led me to Fishbowl Inventory—an inventory and asset management tool that could be integrated with Intuit Quickbooks Enterprise accounting software, or used as a standalone environment. While Fishbowl didn’t offer everything on our wish list, it gave us a good bulk of it. I could finally get rid of that Excel spreadsheet, Filemaker Pro, C.I.T.S., and those pesky finance reallocation forms.
While Fishbowl Inventory is a proprietary-based software, it gave me enough flexibility to integrate our process with the way that it provided us information. That being said, the tool wasn’t necessarily intuitive. However, in my past life, I had worked for several years as an accountant using the Intuit Quickbooks software, and the UI for Fishbowl had a similar look, feel, and navigation. Bottom line: I saw the potential of Fishbowl Inventory and how it could work for us. While my task in finding our tool was now at an end, the integration of this new system was a long road ahead, and a matter of trial and error.
The next task: Integration. No, this isn’t an episode of Hoarders, but it almost could be. It seems to be that the nature of any kind of industry that is mechanical in nature fosters an environment of pack rats. It is ironic, that as our technology grows and changes, the mentality behind hoarding outdated technology does not. In reality, you won’t ever use that old Sony CRT 32-inch WEGA Trinitron Television set again. So, why hang onto it?
In our inability to let go, my clean up process of our storage areas resulted in five dumpsters full of trash, and many more arguments about what to keep. Once equipment was organized, manual inventory entry into Fishbowl was much more manageable— however, we did have a larger issue with entering inventory from our classrooms. Gathering information on more than 250 classrooms was arduous, to say the least. In a manual entry process, getting accurate information was nearly impossible. Also keep in mind that end-user access in these areas wasn’t static. We couldn’t stop operations just to grab a serial number. On top of this, researching exact purchasing information for equipment took several months and often resulted in no documentation at all. This is problematic if only from an R&R standpoint; we can’t possibly know when to R&R a piece of equipment, if we have no information on when it was purchased and/or installed.
Moving forward it was now time to create the process behind moving inventory. To this end, it was an interesting journey of figuring out how we needed equipment out in the field: how we purchased it, who purchased it, is it a consumable product, is it a preplanned project, is this a repair? Documentation and communication were challenging. Add to this the fact that the database entry had to be precise; Fishbowl wasn’t very forgiving. The way that the database works is it moves information between multiple “modules” populated from one central repository. You create a “Part,” the part then attaches other information to it—purchase info, tracking, etc. You enter in information improperly in any area; it’s not easy to change it.
For us, we had three distinct operations systems: 1. We had pre-planned builds for our centrally scheduled classrooms that we were upgrading, and a system was put into place to build the boxes. Equipment is purchased for this; the inventory is taken out of storage, built in a central location, and then the whole unit is transferred to the room at the time of installation. 2. We had repairs in the field. Broken equipment either had to be hot-swapped with something existing in our inventory, and/or the item was under warranty and had to be returned to the manufacturer. 3. We had installations that we sold to “customers.” Equipment is purchased specifically for these jobs, and has to be stored in separate areas. The pieces are either assembled at the shop or taken piecemeal to the location (and sometimes not all at the same moment).
Initially we had created a system whereby the technicians or our student workers would sign out equipment on a sign-out sheet, which would indicate the location, serial number, and whether or not this was a sale, repair, or upgrade. As one can imagine, this became tedious. Equipment transfers were never documented in Fishbowl on a timely basis; information written on the sheets wasn’t always correct.
Training our group on how to use Fishbowl took some time and effort. In most cases, information wasn’t disseminated thoroughly enough. I worked closely with my mentor—one of our in-house engineers and e-learning guru Duncan McBogg—to create an awesome training video using Adobe Captivate.
STEPS FOR SUCCESS
After almost four years in the making, our inventory management is now headache-free. Here are a few steps to take regardless of the inventory and asset management tool you choose:
1. Define your process and understand your database—the tool you are integrating as this backbone of management. Learn how the system works, and, honestly, complete a needs analysis of your own environment. Ultimately, what do you—the enduser— want to get out of it?
2. Define your roles in this process: who is your purchaser? Who is your receiver? Who is the person that makes the bottom-line decisions about how your operation works? If your procedure must change, who propagates that information to your team and ensures that standards are followed? Get a consensus.
3. Know your equipment. At minimum have someone on your team who knows it before you enter it in your database. It is important to understand, for instance, that an SP Controls, Inc. Catlinc VGA comes in a pair, and that either the transmitter or receiver might go bad at any time.
4. Create a solid naming convention and data entry procedure. Construct a data-dictionary. We discovered that we had a lot of duplicate parts and spent much time re-doing our work. Know how you want to enter items from the beginning—it will save you a lot of time in the end.
5. Documentation and control. I cannot stress enough that AV management must begin with control. The system cannot work if too many keys open your storage space. This has nothing to do with security— but more with how equipment can innocently be misplaced.
6. Analyze how many people must be involved to do your management efficiently. Less is always better—it ensures control—but having additional eyes to double check your work and be a backup is always good. You definitely don’t want to take that vacation to Bora Bora and discover that your whole system has shut down while you were gone. A week of mistakes can turn into a yearlong nightmare.
Real Results Guaranteed
These are the tangible ways that we have changed our management practice at CU Boulder:
1. We will be moving our equipment from seven different storage locations to a central one. A large cage is being built with secure access to a select few. This will be the controlled environment we’ve needed to manage our equipment efficiently.
2. Our management team and auxiliary group creates temporary estimates for customers, and our ATS operations coordinator finalizes those estimates and sends them to our customers for approval. This way we know exactly which jobs are coming up and how much inventory we need to have on hand. This also ensures uniformity in the way we’re doing our data entry.
3. Internal jobs will be documented and planned beforehand so that equipment can be set aside for technicians in a timely manner.
4. Purchases are done by our coordinator, or at least communicated to her so that every purchase is entered into our database. It is rare now that we receive anything that we didn’t know was coming. More importantly—we know what the purchase is for, and can always ensure it’s in the right location.
5. In our cage system, our coordinator will serve as the overseer to processes established and documented in a manual. Anything entered into the database will be the result of a checklist that is followed. For the most part student workers will act as equipment dispensers— they will be well versed in the equipment we use. These students will also act as runners to our technicians in the field—if an emergency happens and a swap-out needs to occur—this can happen quickly and efficiently. Equipment will always be scanned in and out.
6. Equipment coming back to the cage will have it’s own process of check-in. Is the item under warranty? Should we keep it in inventory or dispose of it? Regardless, everything now can be cleaned and tested.
7. Every piece of equipment will have its own section in the cage and be “cycled” according to purchase date, or what it’s been purchased for. Never again will we have a question about what we need to order. Even inventory levels on small connectors, heat shrink, hardware, nuts and bolts, etc., can be watched daily.
8. The cage workers will also perform audits on a regular basis, which will include classrooms. Finally we can have real time tracking on inventory and will never again have to scramble to piece information together so that my administrators can get accurate numbers. Raise your hand if you know what I mean.
9. All work done in the cage and database will be logged on a daily basis so that our coordinator can double check the work and ensure accuracy.
10. I will serve as the back-up. This will sincerely be a team effort; everyone is on the same page now.
So whether you have one person managing a few locations, or several managing a campus, you can’t go wrong with these steps from CU Boulder. We took on the challenge to create a new environment where things made sense, and it worked.
Mary K. McDaniel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the Academic Technology Support division of the Office of Information Technology at CU Boulder.